Skip to main content

Social Class in America

Movies Preview

Social Class in America

Published 1957
Topics Sociology, Class, 1950s

Shows the differences in the life experience of three male babies from three different social classes. One young man succeeds his father as president of the family manufacturing company. Another, a middle-class white-collar worker at the same company, leaves the town of his birth and moves to New York City where he becomes a respected advertising art director, thus rising in social status. A third, born into the working class, trains as a mechanic and holds an influential job at a service station. The sociological tone of the film does not mask a sobering narrative of the limitations that social class divisions inflict on all Americans.

Run time 14:49
Producer Knickerbocker Productions
Sponsor McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc.
Audio/Visual Sd, B&W


Shows the difference social class makes in the lives of three high school boys. Explains how one boy is able to raise his social status.
Ken Smith sez: If this film was designed to stimulate thought, it succeeds. We follow the lives of three small town high school buddies; "Gil Ames" who is rich and happy; "Dave Benton" who is poor and doomed; and "Ted Eastwood," who is middle class and doomed. Gil is sent to an Ivy League school (where he meets "men of his own kind"), returns home wearing a bow tie, and takes over his father's very profitable business. Dave gets married, has lots of kids, and winds up working in a gas station. Ted wants to be an artist, but he falls in love with "Mary" and becomes a white collar bookkeeper.
Mary, however, wants a man with a bigger bank account, so she dumps Ted, who then decides to move to Manhattan and "make something" of himself. After many years of hard work as an advertising artist and art director, Ted lands a painfully dull white collar job in an advertising agency and gets to play golf with rich men. This is "vertical mobility," the narrator explains, "particularly characteristic of the United States." Ted returns home wearing a snappy hat, but Mary has married Gil, and both really don't want anything to do with him.
This film was produced to explain basic concepts of sociology, but ends up presenting a rather dark view of social class and mobility in America. Some of it (especially the railroad station scene) appears to have been shot in and around Convent Station, N.J.

Sociological discussion of ascribed status, achieved status, vertical mobility and horizontal mobility in America. We follow the lives of three men from high school on through their professional lives. Rather pessimistic conclusion on the possibilities of movement across class boundaries.
"These three babies are equal under the law, but they are not equal in terms of class..." This sociology lesson breaks educational film taboo by speaking directly about social class, shocking the ears with its frankness.
But what a bleak film! Beginning with shots of newborn babies in a maternity ward, it follows three boys (Dave Benton, a working-class kid; Ted Eastwood, a middle-class boy; and Gil Ames, the son of a factory owner) all the way to adulthood, showing how their destinies are largely determined by the class into which they are born.
Dave Benton finds a job right after high-school graduation, gets married and fathers a large family. Gil Ames goes to an Ivy League university (where he can meet "men of his own kind") and returns home to take over his father's factory. But the film devotes most of its attention to middle-class Ted Eastwood, who wants to be an artist but can't afford to take the risk of passing up a steady job. Ted grows increasingly frustrated with his boring white-collar job and his limited options. The final straw is when he loses his upper-class girlfriend to Gil. Feeling trapped for life, Ted moves to New York and becomes a commercial artist.
The film then shifts into a kind of implicit celebration of upward mobility, American-style. Ted becomes a great success in New York, the great melting pot. In a passage remarkable at once for its delicacy and candor, the narrator remarks: "Class lines are drawn differently in a large city like New York, although they are still there. Here professional standing, power and wealth are of great importance. It is possible for members of socially prominent families, theater people who may have come from the lower class, and successful businessmen of the middle class to mix socially, and Ted is an accepted member of the group." But when Ted returns home to visit his parents, he reverts to his previous status, "still the nice kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, no matter how successful he is."
Though there is nothing really radical about Social Class in America (its matrix of social class is derived from sociological, rather than Marxist categories) it was highly unusual for educational films in this period to openly discuss the limits of mobility in our society. In a time filled with noises of boom and prosperity, the mass media was generally silent on the subject of ceilings and barriers. As a technical film for the education of sociologists, this movie was freer to define the categorical limits of our freedom.

Stock shots:
Newborn babies (excellent), white collar work; commercial kitchen; baking; yearbooks; domestic servants; family dinner;
street scenes; pedestrians; advertising agency; commercial art; cars; waving; gas station; men golfing in funny golf clothing;
"Class lines are drawn differently in a large city like New York. Although they are still there. Here professional standing, power and wealth are of great importance. It is possible for members of socially prominent families, theater people who may have come from the lower class, and successful businessmen of the middle class to mix socially and Ted is an accepted member of the group."
"He knows now that to her and Gil, he's still the nice kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, no matter how successful he is. His achieved status is higher than that of his father's because he has a profession. But that status depends on a place. In this case, New York."


Reviewer: explainer - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - September 18, 2010
Subject: Identifying places in this movie
As mentioned in the shot list, the rail station is in Convent Station, NJ, where I grew up. Also, I believe I can recognize Madison High School, stores around the Green in Morristown, including Bambergers, and the the hospital where the boys are born is Morristown Memorial.

I was born one year before this was made. I think the world depicted in the film matched the world around me. I knew people very much like the ones shown.
Reviewer: donwert - favoritefavorite - February 3, 2010
Subject: The 50s
Graham W.: I did, in fact, graduate from high school in 1966. But my two older brothers (the ones who earned PhDs) graduated in 1957 and 1958, respectively. They were the first in our extended family (including numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) to attend college. Interestingly, most of their high school friends
went on to college too and, like my brothers, were the first from their families to continue their educations beyond high school. So I really think the shackles of social class truly began to erode in a significant way during that decade---and accelerated through the 60s, as you note.

BTW, in mentioning that my Dad was a tool and die maker, I did not mean to imply in any way a lack of respect for the skill involved. He was very skilled and often let me come to the tool room of the company where he worked on Saturday mornings to watch him work. I marveled at his ability to take a blueprint and a block of steel and fashion it with intricate care to create an elaborate die. But it was nevertheless a blue collar job, albeit a skilled one, with all that implied for social standing. It was never a question in our home whether we kids would attend college---it was a given.
Reviewer: Graham W - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 2, 2010
Subject: @ donwert -- Right, the whole theme of 'Social Class in America', '57, is relentlessly grim.
You're right, the whole theme of this film, 'Social Class in America'(1957), is relentlessly grim, also it's depressing and fatalistic. Moreover, you point to your family as having successfully broken out of a not so acceptable social class for a better one, thus implying the film doesn’t really reflect reality. You're correct, but in 1957 things were very different and the picture the film paints of the mid 1950s is reasonably factual although for emphasis its case is somewhat overstated.

As a '48 baby-boomer, you will have graduated from high school about 1966. The mid to late 1960s were worlds apart from 1957 in just so many ways: the social revolution of the early 1960s--changes in attitudes to sex, class, egalitarianism etc., the Vietnam War, the draft (in a time of war), fundamental changes in civil rights, Kennedy, Johnson etc. By the time you'd graduated from college, we'd had the moon landings, the anti Vietnam War demonstrations--a huge social upheaval in and of itself--flower power and the hippie movement and of course Woodstock. And no one can forget the student riots around the world, especially in Paris.

Other than in times of all-out war, there are not many periods in history where attitudes have changed so dramatically in just a single decade. The staid 1950s depicted in this picture, thankfully, had gone by the mid 1960s and I'm sure you'd benefited from it. A hypothetical is not proof but it would be a reasonable bet to say that had you kids left school in 1957 things most likely would have been much harder for you. For starters, statistically your father's income a decade earlier say in 1951-52 probably couldn't have supported all of you kids right through high school, as the benefits of the post-war boom wouldn't be fully realized for another decade, concomitantly neither would the income of the average worker. (By 1960, the average income had increase very substantially over that of the early 1950s)

Clearly, you are a very talented lot, and my sincere congratulations to you for your success--as it's always great to see talent succeed, however, had the year been 1957 then perhaps not all of you would have done so well.

It is not my aim to criticize your comment, rather your experience provides a brilliant segue into a discussion that contrasts the 1950s and '60s. This film, although depressing and exaggerated, is an excellent snapshot of those times; it conveys a stuffy formal milieu that wouldn't have been tolerated by the kids of a decade later. For example, the party scene at Dave Benton's home has all males dressed in a suit and tie, a decade later they'd all have been in jeans--not to mention the young having long hair!

That you teenagers of the mid 1960s seem to be unaware that social mobility was supposed to be an obstacle in life amply demonstrates that a radically different zeitgeist by then had taken hold. By the mid 1960's, teenagers weren’t questioning whether their future was to be determined by the socially accepted strictures of circa 1957, rather, they simply ignored* them.

Finally, I must say that being tool and die maker is not something of which to be ashamed; it is the pinnacle job of the metal industries (outside professional mechanical engineers--but then they don’t get their hands dirty). Tool and die making is precision work and at its high end it involves great skill, expertise and considerable experience. Perhaps your father's talents and skills passed onto you kids and that you are too close to events to appreciate it. Today, our society greatly undervalues people who have talent and who can work skilfully with their hands and it does so at its peril. Now, we are almost totally dependent on Asian workers outside the country to provide those skills for us. (No, I'm not a tool and die maker, however once I did study metal and woodworking and I've briefly worked in machine shops. Electronics is my profession, so I don't get my hands dirty either but I take my hat off to those who do.)

I'm going to rate this film high, not for content which is only mediocre, but as a 50-plus year old historical snapshot that even today still provides us with ideas to think about.


* My family was between working and middle class and I can honestly say as a teenage baby-boomer that the concept of class restricting what I would do with my life never even entered my head. Nevertheless, I was aware of the class structures of my parents' era. To me, class was a quaint, somewhat strange notion of one's parents, it wasn't cool or egalitarian.
Reviewer: ERD - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 24, 2006
Subject: Limitations
A 1957 film showing the personal limitations due to family class structure in this country (Stronger in small towns than in the big cities.)
Today, it is less prevalent, but with monopolies becoming powerful again, and prices increasing at a higher rate than wage raises, one wonders what will happen.
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 9, 2005
Subject: In a rich man's world
Very odd-in-stomach movie about 3 boys and how their social class will lead them for the rest of their lives, The rich baby will always be rich, the poor one will always be poor, the middle-class baby though, in his twenties, moves up in the world, but is treated as middle class at home. Pshaw at that I say! Impress the middle class people at home! And watch out for rich kids, they'll steal your woman away! Very odd and strange actually. While some of it may be true, this film I believe is of the minority and not the majority (but I could be wrong).
Reviewer: MediaWhore - favoritefavoritefavorite - June 7, 2004
Subject: Class War not Race War!!
Poor Ted Eastwood. He is born into a middle class society and Mary, the hot stuck up rich girl, will have nothing to do with him because he is below her. Ted has dreams of pursuing a career in art. His father talks him out of it saying that "security lies in business and white collar work". So good ol Ted becomes a book keeper alongside his dad at the local corporate slave office. Unhappy with the life he is stuck with he goes out on a limb by moving to NY and eventually he improves his social status by becoming a successfull art director. Now when he goes home he'll be able to get with Mary. WRONG!! Aside from the fact she is now married to some upper class schmuck we still know Ted won't be gettin any on the side because he wasnt born into thier elite club. You can't polish a turd so to say. Meanwhile the lower class fiqure who works at the gas station is churnin out babies like there is no tommorow!!
Reviewer: Marysz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 2, 2004
Subject: Aspiring for Vertical Mobility
A look at three boys in small town America in the 1950s. GilbertÃÂs dad owns the local factory; heÃÂs upper class. TedÃÂs dad works for GilbertÃÂs dadÃÂs company and is middle class. DavidÃÂs dad has an unskilled job and heÃÂs lower class. Since this is the fifties, the only people whose social class matters are white men. There is only one woman in the film, Mary. Mary rejects TedÃÂsheÃÂs upper class and heÃÂs not (we know sheÃÂs upper class because she has her own carÃÂunusual for young women in the fifties). Ted moves to New York and becomes an art director at an ad agency and, as the film puts it, makes a ÃÂhorizontal move to achieve vertical mobility.ÃÂ In other words, he raises his social standing by moving away. In New York he can move between the different social classes, but once heÃÂs back in his small town heÃÂs still plain old Ted. David becomes a skilled auto mechanic and probably does pretty well for himself, despite the fact that his job has less prestige than TedÃÂs. Gil, the only one of the boys to go to college, comes home to run the family factory. The America we see in this film is one in which towns have factories that produce goods and employ the local citizens. TedÃÂs dad didnÃÂt go to college, yet heÃÂs still middle class. A high school graduate could still earn a decent living then and be considered a member of the middle class. Ted ends up running the art department at a New York ad agency simply as a result of taking night classes. For some white men at least, there was more social mobility than there is today. The film mentions that social class also has to do with ÃÂnationality, religion and raceÃÂ but we donÃÂt see anyone other than WASP white men in this film. Presumably, the children of immigrant parents, non-whites and women were so socially marginalized in the fifties that their social class was negligible in the eyes of the larger society (and the producers of this film).
Reviewer: NG - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - May 26, 2003
Subject: America is a Class Society...
...but it's rarely talked about. Krugman wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine (Sept. or Oct. 2002) noting that income inequality is growing again in the U.S., in a big way. We are entering a new guilded age like we had in the early decades of the 1900s. This movie was filmed when our nation enjoyed comparative equality, but you just have to look at CEO compensation to know we're moving further and further away from that.

I'm no communist, but I feel that democracy is undermined when a tiny number of people wield vast power. All of the current administration's cabinet are millionaires. Are they representing my interests?

Anyway, note the absence of any non-whites in this documentary.
Reviewer: seaholme - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 3, 2003
Subject: Class structure today is all in the mind.
Like changing your suit you can restructure your life to present a different outlook or image to flow from one class to another. It truly is within us all to achieve this. In the 50's you were brainwashed into believing that you were unable to cross over these boundaries. Now that most of the old establishment have passed on along with their archaic class theories. We now believe in an individuals achievements and their presentation within the social group does not require 'Old Family' baggage. They can now walk alone on their journey from one social class to another with only their individual talents and social presentation as a prerequisit. The old days are great to visit....but you can never go back.....It's called,growing up.
SIMILAR ITEMS (based on metadata)
Prelinger Archives
by Knickerbocker Productions
eye 452
favorite 2
comment 0
Prelinger Archives
by Knickerbocker Productions
eye 780
favorite 3
comment 2
favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite ( 2 reviews )
Prelinger Archives
by Knickerbocker Productions
eye 21,040
favorite 38
comment 4
favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite ( 4 reviews )
Montgomery County Media
eye 17
favorite 0
comment 0
Daisy Books for the Print Disabled
eye 15
favorite 0
comment 0
Yiddish Book Center's Wexler Oral History Project
by Yiddish Book Center (Liz)
eye 49
favorite 0
comment 0
Daisy Books for the Print Disabled
by Zweigenhaft, Richard L; Domhoff, G. William
eye 6
favorite 0
comment 0
eye 461
favorite 1
comment 0
Folkscanomy Politics: Political Systems, Government and Democratic Organization
by Nicholas A. Varsanyi
eye 309
favorite 0
comment 0